Posted On 16 Oct 2011
As it is written in the Tao Te Ching: “Attain complete emptiness. Cling to stillness.” That is my interpretation of the beginning of verse 16, chih hsu chi.
No, I don’t know ancient Chinese. I have, though, learned a little about it.
It is very different from English and other modern western languages. It’s helpful to understand how it is different.
All words in all languages come from Becoming [click here for the important Being / Becoming distinction]. Therefore, there are no words in any languages suitable for describing Being.
This explains the famous opening of the Tao Te Ching, which tells us that a way that is able to be walked is not The Way and The Way that can be named is not The Way. In other words, Lao-Tzu, the supposed author, is telling is that the words he is using are inherently inadequate.
Even just to say “realize Being” is already misleading!
Also, no forms other than words could work. For example, gestures like pointing are, like words, nothing but forms. No forms can signify the formless.
Written Chinese lacks grammar. It uses pictorial representations to represent concepts. Those concepts are neither singular nor plural. They are neither nouns, verbs, adjectives, nor adverbs. They do not indicate either past, present, or future. Their use occurs in a perceptual context.
By way of contrast, English has grammar. Events occur temporally — in past, present, or future – and temporal sequences are clarified. Subjects and objects are identified, and their relationships are clarified. In other words, English has a nonperceptual context.
Obviously, then, translating from ancient Chinese to English is very difficult. It would be foolish to expect a definitive translation of any ancient Chinese work into English.
Why, then, think that Lao-tzu’s “Attain complete emptiness. Cling to stillness.” means “realize Being”?
I am relying on Jonathan Star’s edition of the Tao Te Ching, which helpfully provides a complete, verbatim translation of the entire text as well as literal character definitions that allow any reader to work out his or her own interpretation.
(A related amusing story: when I was serving in the U. S. army in Korea, I decided to learn Korean. As soon as I fully realized that doing so involved memorizing thousands of Korean characters or pictures [rather than just an alphabet], I instantly gave up! My decision to quit was reinforced when someone explained to me that Korean philosophers write in Chinese rather than Korean anyway.)
Star informs us that ‘chih’ means ‘attain, reach, cause, bring about, arrive at.’ ‘Hsu’ means ‘emptiness, vacuity, passivity, void, openness.’ ‘Chi’ means ‘highest, utmost, ultimate, climax, summit, full, complete, goal.’
So the initial three Chinese characters in verse 16 mean something like: ‘Cause complete emptiness.’ This, though, is so vague in English that it seems preposterous.
Stephen Mitchell translates it much more helpfully as “Empty your mind of all thoughts.” This is right on target. However, where does ‘your’ come from? A person cannot be identified with mind; otherwise, it would be impossible for anyone to realize Being. Being is impersonal; there is no personal Being.
(Neither is there a separate person in Becoming, but that’s another discussion.)
So “attain complete emptiness” is better. The critical point is that the phrase ‘complete emptiness’ refers to mind devoid of thoughts.
‘Attain’ can be misleading. ‘Attain’ should be understood negatively rather than positively.
Usually, to attain something is to gain something, to add something, to get more. Here, though, that’s not what it means. Again, what it means is to realize complete emptiness of mind by letting go of all thoughts. Therefore, ‘attain’ here is to be understood as a dropping, releasing, or letting go.
So ‘attain complete emptiness’ means ‘realize Being’ by letting go of all thoughts.
The next sentence translates ‘shou’ which means ‘keep, hold, cling, hold firm, maintain, abide in, observe, preserve’ and ‘ching’ which means ‘still[ness], quite[ude], tranquill[ity], still point, peace, harmony, repose.’
Clearly, ‘ching’ refers to the stillness that is Being. Why ‘cling to stillness’?
Since Being is formless and it’s possible to cling only to forms, the idea of clinging to stillness is impossible. It’s impossible to cling to the formless.
Lao-tzu is not recommending the impossible; instead, he’s probably just emphasizing its difficulty.
In any case he’s telling us that it’s insufficient merely to realize Being. There’s more than that. Describing that more is difficult.
Merely “maintaining” Being seems too passive. “Holding firmly” to Being is the right idea. Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo translate it as: “Hold fast to stillness.” ‘Clinging’ is holding fast: it suggests really holding fast.
The big idea is to realize being and keep realizing Being. In other words, it’s to break through to Being and then to abide in Being. A glimpse of Being is sufficient to realize Being, but Lao-Tzu’s recommendation is not merely to realize Being but to stay there.
That, though, is impossible. Even a fully enlightened sage cannot literally abide or live in Being.
What Lao-Tzu seems really to be recommending is to experience Becoming from Being, which yields repose. This is the reverse of what ordinary people do, which is to experience Being, if at all, from Becoming.
The recommendation to realize Being is to be understood nontemporally. Clinging or holding fast to Being means never again getting lost in Becoming, maintaining the perspective of a sage rather than the reversed perspective of an ordinary human. It is living the temporal via the eternal.
What does this really mean? What’s the cash value of the recommendation to realize Being?
It means emptying the mind of all thoughts and keeping it as close to that as possible. Let go of thoughts as much as possible – and keep doing it.
That is exactly what sages do that the rest of us fail to do.
For six suggestions on how to do what sages do, on how to realize being, click here.